EU Parliament calls on Commission to consider Google break-up

As expected, the European Parliament has passed a resolution that calls on the European Commission to consider a break-up of Google as a potential solution to its dominance in the European search market.

Google is currently embroiled in a long-running antitrust case with the European Commission over the way it uses its search dominance – it has more than 90 percent of the European market — to push its own services (among other things). The Commission is also looking into complaints about Google’s bundling of its services with Android.

The resolution was passed on Thursday by 384 votes to 174, with 56 abstentions, urging the Commission to consider “unbundling” Google’s search business from its other interests. The Commission does have the power to force a company’s break-up (the European Parliament cannot itself initiate any such plan) but has never before done so. Nor has the European Parliament ever urged such a move in this way.

Digital economy commissioner Günther Oettinger – who it should be noted is not in charge of this affair – has already come out against any break-up plan. His colleague Margrethe Vestager, the competition commissioner, is currently considering what she should do, and digital single market chief Andrus Ansip is coordinating them both. The new Commission only took over from the last lot at the start of November.

The resolution, which also backed Ansip’s push for a digital single market and called on the Council of the EU to hurry up and finalize new rules on data protection, roaming and net neutrality, stated:

The European Parliament… notes that the online search market is of particular importance in ensuring competitive conditions within the digital single market, given the potential development of search engines into gatekeepers and the possibility they have of commercialising secondary exploitation of information obtained; calls, therefore, on the Commission to enforce EU competition rules decisively, based on input from all relevant stakeholders and taking into account the entire structure of the digital single market in order to ensure remedies that truly benefit consumers, internet users and online businesses; calls, furthermore, on the Commission to consider proposals aimed at unbundling search engines from other commercial services as one potential long-term means of achieving the aforementioned aims.

For a vote that didn’t decide much in concrete terms, it was certainly preceded by furious lobbying and plenty of behind-the-scenes mudslinging.

In the days leading up to the vote, the New York Times revealed that Andreas Schwab, the German conservative who initiated the Google break-up proposal, provides competition policy expertise to a German law firm whose parent company has done work for publishers that are involved in the antitrust case against the company.

Then, after some U.S. congresspeople and senators wrote to the European Parliament chief to decry the draft resolution, it emerged that three out of the four signatories have received campaign funding from Google.

UPDATE (7.30am PT): The German government has also waded into the debate now.

In a letter to the relevant commissioners, the national government did not mention any break-up of Google, but suggested that its dominance could be reined in by “the obligation to present competing offers at no charge; the provision of discrimination-free access to all content, with effective controls regarding abuse; [or] the introduction of a principle of ‘platform neutrality,’ along with an efficacious implementation of same and the introduction of structured required for this purpose.”

Google should also be stopped from using “original content obtained from third-party websites without authorization”, the letter added. This is of course German national policy — the publishers are very politically powerful there, although their attempts to get Google to stop using snippets of their text in Google News have failed miserably.

The Germans also seemed to back the Council of the EU’s tepid stance towards net neutrality, arguing for “shared principles” and not mentioning firm rules. They went on to urge a crackdown on “major digital companies generating high income in the European Union and using third-party infrastructure to do so” to be forced to pay their EU taxes, as they currently have an unfair advantage over companies that do pay their taxes.

The letter also backed stronger pan-European data protection rules, including a right to be forgotten, and stronger copyright protection as well, “to bring it in line with digital developments.”